A young girl reads news in a bomb shelter in Kyiv, 2022/02/25/2. (Sergei Chuzavkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A face-swapping app is fighting Russian disinformation by telling its users what’s really happening in Ukraine—including at least 2 million people inside Russia.The campaign is being orchestrated by Reface, a Ukrainian based app that uses artificial intelligence technology to take the face of users and put them onto the bodies of celebrities. The company, headquartered in Kyiv, launched the campaign after it saw the Kremlin’s efforts to prevent Russian citizens from learning the truth about what’s happening in Ukraine, efforts that have included blocking Twitter and Facebook and forcing Russian media outlets to refer to the invasion as a “special operation.”
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.
To combat this censorship, Reface issued a push notification to its users simply stating: “Russia has invaded Ukraine.” Users who opened the app were then presented with more details about the situation on the ground in Ukraine, including images of what’s happening in cities like Kyiv.Additionally, all new videos created by the app feature a watermark that includes the Ukrainian flag and the hashtag #StandWithUkraine.The company says that so far 9 million notifications have been sent worldwide, 2 million of which were delivered to users in Russia.The company’s CEO, Dima Shvets, told VICE News that users in Russia have been sharing the watermarked videos, and some have been posting positive messages on social media platforms after receiving the push notifications.“But, of course, we’ve got much more negative reactions,” Shvets said.Those negative reactions have taken the form of 1-star reviews in the Google and Apple app stores. Shvets said they had been in touch with both tech companies to flag the influx of negative reviews from Russia, but so far neither company has responded.“We understood all the risks from the very beginning, so we took all of them and were ready for an outflow of users and their reports,” Shvets said. “We’ve contacted [Apple’s] App Store and Google Play asking them to cooperate with us and support Ukraine. Our risks are such a small price compared to spreading the truth and our freedom.”
The company’s employees are all based in Ukraine and so far all are safe, Daria Kravets, the PR manager for the company, told VICE News, though some have fled Kyiv for the western part of the country and some have left the country altogether. Others “voluntarily joined territorial defense forces [while] some others are staying in Kyiv helping informationally and technologically from bomb shelters,” Kravets said.Over the weekend, the Kremlin began restricting access to Twitter and Facebook for users inside Russia. The decision came hours after both companies announced they would be blocking Russian users from buying ads on their platforms.Google has taken a similar decision regarding ads on its platforms, and also banned the app of Russian state-run TV station RT from being downloaded in Ukrainian territory at the request of the Ukrainian government.On Sunday evening, the company’s CEO Sundar Pichai, as well as the head of YouTube, Susan Wojcicki, held a meeting with EU leaders on Sunday night to discuss further ways the company can help prevent Russia from spreading disinformation.“I expect YouTube and Google to step up efforts to address Russian war propaganda,” said Věra Jourová, vice president of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, according to a readout from the meeting.“Russia has weaponized information. This is why platforms cannot be a space for its war lies. I appreciate some measures already taken, especially efforts to ensure the flow of information into Russia. We agreed to stay in close contact in the coming days.”Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.